December 17, 2012

The range of features available on Apple’s latest iPad 4 compared to the iPad 3 and previous versions has not improved dramatically, with the only real innovation being the use of a better touchscreen technology. The prior iPads 2 and 3 compare well with significant improvements between the two models, especially concerning screen resolution and memory. The latest Generation 4 iPad has the same screen and memory as the iPad 3 and is still dependent on the now aging but still capable iOS6.  Here in our iPad comparison, we’re focusing on the whole range of iPads – reviewed so that you can see for yourself what the advantages of the various models are and how they’ve progressed.

But first, we take an unconventional detour to look at the real first tablet that Apple came out.

First Apple Pad - The Newton MessagePad 100
[ Credit : Rama & Musée Bolo ]

The humble Apple Newton MessagePad 100.  Developed in the early 90s, this little critter ran on a 33 MHz ARM Processor and boasted handwriting recognition, orientation switching, an IR blaster and a Stylus (obviously – none of this fancy touch screen business of today dummy). Sadly it doesn’t have an ambient light sensor, so you would have had to manually change the brightness with a physical scroll wheel to the side of the Pad.  It had a 336 x 240 B&W display; by comparison the 1st edition Nook had an 800 x 480 B&W display – not bad considering it was 20 odd years ago.

Which iPad Should I Get?

This might be a no-brainer for some but the immense effect of the iPad had such an impact that even now, two and a half years on, the original iPad 1 still has a healthy secondary market on eBay, alongside all the other models. The longevity of the iPad is pretty astonishing ! Now if you’re wondering which iPad to go for, you’re in the right place as not only do we show you the strengths and weaknesses of the latest Gen3 and Gen4 iPads, but we also compared them alongside the original Gen1 and Gen2. Note that retailers of course no longer sell the 1st Generation iPad nor the 3rd as it’s been discontinued recently in October 2012. Still on sale are the iPad 2, the new iPad mini and the new iPad 4, which Apple launched just recently in Nov 2012. We’ve compared a number of features and specifications without trying to be overly detailed – we’re focusing on the actual usability of the iPads in this comparison. In summary, the only ones worth buying now are the iPad 2 or 4. Though available, the iPad 1 is old enough now that people would look at you squinting and if it’s a gift for someone, don’t expect anything back. As for the iPad 3, it’s main enhancements – 4G and the enhanced Retina display – targets only a small section of consumers. But let’s get into the details.

Typical indicators of the progress of a product such as the iPad is the integration of new technologies and improvements in ergonomics or new operating systems / features. The iPad series has not offered any remarkable new innovations as time has gone by, rather a continuous march of progress that embraces new technologies as they became available with a static minimalist design concept that’s become the hallmark of Apple products. Graphics quality, software and networking improvements are the main thrust of the changes as the new generations have evolved.

iPad1 Rear

iPad1 on showing flowers and side control

The iPad 1′s minimalist but appealing looks

Processor Speeds

The CPU/GPU arrangement in the iPad series has kept pace with technology as newer models are released, featuring more advanced processors. The ARM processors used by the iPad family is a formidable processor capable of fairly spectacular number-crunching. Most of this effort is transparent to the user however. The processor itself is not such a major performance bottleneck as in days gone by with the latest ARM Cortex A9 CPU taking on the challenge in the iPad3. The iPad 4 has Apple’s latest AX6 mobile chipset which is also based on the ARM Cortex Series. In use, the new iPad seems as responsive as previous generations even though the improved graphics capabilities puts a lot more strain on the system.

GPU / Graphics

To compare GPUs we could simply look at the number of processor cores; the iPad 2 GPU is a dual-core with the iPad 3 and 4 using a quad-core GPU. Although it might seem a quad-core GPU is pretty much twice the power of a dual-core, this isn’t the whole picture. In real applications, doubling power does help but the screen definition plays a big role in determining the amount of processing required. When comparing iPad models, the screen resolution has increased dramatically from the iPad 2 compared to the iPad 3 & 4 – from ~800k pixels to ~3m pixels, a fourfold increase. Why does it matter? It affects the PPI (Pixels per Inch) – which hasthe number of pixels per inch has increased as a result but this does not affect the GPU performance which is governed mostly by the number of pixels in use and the refresh rate. Hence, increase in power is not the same as the increase in performance but other technologies within iOS6 and better memory speeds/management have helped to make an almost linear transition from the dual-core GPU to the quad-core GPU in terms of perceived speed.

Display

The display quality of these tablets has been impressive since they were introduced with touchscreen technology – the cornerstone of modern tablet design. Apple’s tablets have been carefully engineered with generation 3 and 4 sharing the same greater depth of color and HD quality, paired with ever faster graphics processors that deliver stunning detail. As the models have developed, there has been the same maximum video frame rate of 30fps available. Increased pixel density to 264ppi has led the way to better visual effects and realism. The latest iPad Retina has the highest possible combination of performance components and brings users a new dimension in graphics quality. Generations 1 and 2 had less well featured graphics, but with a tablet-sized screen this difference may not be as important to many, with the 720p graphics resolution being quite adequate for a good quality movie viewing. Generations 3 and 4 have stunning graphics at extremely high resolution (2048 x1536) thanks in no small part to the retina display.

Touchscreen

The touchscreen which is the basic human interface for a tablet remains the same across models 1-3. The screens are made from a robust modern material capable of withstanding the many fingerprint movements and contact abrasion that is inherent in everyday use of a tablet. The fact the display has no cover is another reason why such a good quality scratch resistant material is necessary. The iPad 4 has multi-touch screen sensing and tracking technology, used on its laptop mouse pads and other Apple touch sensitive devices. The screen is protected by an oleophobic fingerprint resistant coating to maintain long-term clarity, much like oil in a non-stick frying pan.

Memory


All models can be purchased in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB with the LPDDR2 in current models being significantly faster than in the earlier 1st and 2nd generation Apple tablets. LPDDR2 is capable of delivering data at well over 550MHz for older models and later versions (2nd gen) running at 1066MHz. The differences in bandwidth and memory speed from generation to generation is commensurate with the increased need for memory as screen resolutions get higher. The latest generations seem to lag behind slightly with respect to faster memory hardware but to the user there is no noticeable performance loss. There is no option (as is common with Apple products) to increase the internal memory of any of the iPads reviewed.

iPad 1 Proprietory Connector Zoomed In
iPad4 Lightning Connector Zoomed In
iPad 1 and 4 Connectors

Lightning Adaptors and other iPad Connections


USB, HDMI, Ethernet or any other connections are not provided in any form whatsoever on any of the 4 Apple tablets. There are adaptors however to cover all these needs. Power and docking are available on the newer models so users are not reliant on adapter cables for their 30-pin sockets; the same 30-pin connector that is found on so many of their products such as iPods and iPhones. The inability to easily interconnect using these cables is evident because laptops and other devices tend to offer USB as the common interface – even Apple’s laptops offer this. The availability of 30-pin to lightning and USB adaptor cables has made things a little easier but many people find this is a clumsy way to interoperate, simply adding more accessories to the iPad series that detract from its easy-to-carry, mobile persona. These problems for users have led to Apple developing a new interface – the lightning connector. This ‘intelligent’ cable can carry power and data and easily interface with many other devices without lots of extraneous connections. The problem from the Apple perspective is that these connectors require relatively large sockets to be located on the device making them prone to all types of breakage and foreign matter intrusion. The Apple slimline format has no room in its design concept for such poorly conceived solutions. Apple cable connections are discreet, can be magnetically attached and are always easily removable/insertable without difficulty. The new lightning connector is a reversible (up/down) 8 pin connector which supersedes the 30-pin format but is compatible with a multitude of functions that would normally require all those 30 connections. The way that Apple has (ingeniously as usual) approached the problem is to put adaptive cable sensing built into the cable connector ends in the form of miniature electronics. These electronics are indeed very small yet capable of determining what type of device has been connected to the cable – creating what can best be described as an intelligent cable and given it’s now been introduced in the iPad with Retina Display, no doubt this’ll be a standard that’ll persist in future Apple tablets. We hope.

Wireless


These have remained similar since the 1st generation with the biggest increase being in the amount of support for cellular networks – LTE, HSPA, HSPA+ and DC-HSPA – so the Internet can be accessed without long term contractual agreements, common with many cellular plans. Using SkyHook and other similar services, geographic location is accurate and immediate. Wireless capability is standard with all models offering 802.11a/b/g/n which is a world standard. Bluetooth connectivity in 3rd and 4th generation iPads is now at version 4.0 which is the latest available version of Bluetooth, and among other features this has a ‘Low Energy’ mode which minimises use of that precious tablet battery juice

Extras


Gyroscopic sensors detect the orientation of the iPad. This is only available in 2nd generation iPads and upwards and has extended the capabilities for many programs both for gaming use and for geographic positioning. The gyroscopic sensors give it the ability to make calculations based on the physical orientation of the iPad – point it toward an object and it can determine what you are looking at; for example a star position in the sky or the compass direction the device is pointed in. This functionality has paved the way for users to enjoy many newer games which rely on physical motion as a major component of the game playability. Programmers are using gyroscopic features to provide all sorts of ingenious software that can utilize motion. In combination with the HD cameras, recognition of objects has become a reality now as has their real time motion and direction.

Weight and Dimensions


This has not really improved through the iPad’s history and weight has actually increased slightly in later models with a modest 50g added. This is due to the fact that the battery contains the same technology and makes up a large part of the overall weight. The addition of more sensors and features with the higher screen density has contributed to the overall package remaining at about the same 650 grams. The dimensions have remained the same since the 2nd generation and are largely governed by the screen pixel numbers and density. As with all Apple tablets, the screen bezel – the black area between the screen and the edge of the device – is consistent across all models.

Conclusion 


The main changes as the generations of iPads has progressed have involved the visual component of the system. The operating system has been upgraded to include more features, some related to the extra functionality offered by gyroscopic sensing. Combined with acceleration sensing, the opportunities for new ways to use an iPad seem to be continually increasing. Programmers are applying their imagination to the situation with fervor and producing new apps on a regular basis -over 270,000 apps are now available! Comparing the iPad 2 and iPad 4 (the only two larger versions still in production) and for the buyer, the choice will probably be swung by the motion capabilities and enhanced graphics in the more expensive 4th generation models. The more affordable 2nd generation version has similar computing capacity in real terms but a reduced graphics capability and poorer cameras. 4th gen models also have 4G as opposed to 3G speeds, which makes Internet browsing and downloading quicker; extra Wi-Fi options also extend the capabilities and make it more attractive to the socially interactive user. Apple continues to impress with stunningly detailed graphics invivid color their new iPad Retina (Gen 4). How much your pocket can withstand the fairly high price of Apple products could have a bearing on which iPad to get – if cost is not the primary concern, the iPad 4 Retina probably takes the prize for ‘best in class.’

 

Remember you can compare the raw specs for all iPads by filtering on our Specs Grid.

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